Feature Story

Fast Company’s Innovative Leader of the Year: Carlos Pignataro

Learn why he views the ritual of inventorship more like a dance and how you can get your creative groove on too.
Sep 13, 2021

This is a post by Julie Allen. 

Carlos Pignataro, CX CTO, was about to give his top-of-mind when his team started a drumroll.

He thought, “I don’t remember having anything that special to share today.”

Then the slide advanced to reveal  Carlos Pignataro is Fast Company’s Innovative Leader of the Year.

In a few milliseconds, his mind raced from “What is that doing there?” to feeling incredible joy for the team. “I truly feel this is a reflection in the way in which we are all driving inclusive innovation,” says Carlos.

Carlos holds more than 200 issued patents and is responsible for more that 50 Internet Requests for Comments. It’s no wonder he was also recently named one of the top 100 most influential Hispanic leaders in Technology. 

This award was particularly meaningful as his daughter Sofía enthusiastically held up the HITEC 100 award with him during the virtual ceremony.

When asked how being an inventor has influenced his children and the way they see the world, Carlos flips the question and responds, “I would say that my kids influence me in my inventorship.”

For instance, his eldest, Luca, is very focused on inclusivity and gets the credit for getting Carlos into international volunteering. It’s debatable who taught who on their trip to build a school in Kenya. Or how that adventure led to Carlos architecting techno-conservation in rhino-saving projects.

Revealing his secrets

No, not the trade secrets that he has also contributed to Cisco’s intellectual property portfolio. We wish.

Instead, he shares something even better: Advice for how every one of us can become more inventive.

Allow yourself to be an inventor

The first nugget he shares is to believe it’s possible.

“You need to break down the self-imposed barriers you’ve created on what you can or cannot do” explains Carlos.

“Imagine it’s built from Lego blocks. Each brick represents a pre-conceived element you think is holding you back. I was full of them.”

He adds, “Like I’m from Argentina, I didn’t go to college here, I have an accent, I like to smile, etcetera. We all build artificial barriers for ourselves.”

“It is all perspective”, Carlos continues, “I learned that those are our differentiated and unique contributions we bring to the team.”

Carlos’s trick to tearing down that barrier of self-doubt: Making yourself uncomfortable.

“Getting outside my comfort zone and teaming up with people more diverse than me is what led me to the creation of my first patent. Cisco is a diverse company, and each of us have our own context and life experiences to contribute and bring ideas to life.”

Get comfortable messing up too

“I remember very clearly when I made a very public misstep in the Internet Engineering Task Force. You see, I posted something that was technically preposterous,” Carlos chuckles as he tells the story.

But at the time, he wasn’t laughing and was quite concerned.

Turns out his technology heresy led to a few comments that turned into a discussion. That dialogue ended up sparking a surprising improvement.

Carlos reflects, “I think, in general, we tend to overinflate mistakes and underplay our resiliency. So this error — which I completely magnified in my mind — became something I ended up growing a lot from.”

Think outside-in

Inclusive Innovation plus execution equals true accomplishment.

Carlos cites telemetry as a recent example of all this coming together.

He says, “Tackle an important and hard problem for the company. Collaborate across the whole portfolio, focus the capability to customer value and business relevance, align both to strategic priorities and our technology. Find win-wins, elevate others.”

The result? The “Experience Telemetry” team won a TSIA STAR Award 2021 for Innovation in Customer Success.

Enjoy the beauty and fun of it

Some people may view inventorship as something that happens in a meeting, or potentially as a boring classroom session.

Not Carlos.

“To me, the ritual of inventorship is more like a dance because it is collaborative. It’s creative. It’s artistic.” But above all else and most importantly, Carlos emphasizes, “It needs to solve a real relevant problem.”

Carlos circles back to his children. “You know, thinking about it some more, I do hope I have inspired them to solve problems in a creative, perspective-changing, Ubuntu-like, happy way.”

No doubt he has.

After all, he definitely has around Cisco.